NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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NOAA Scientist Helps Make Mapping Vital Seagrass Habitat Easier and More Accurate

Shoal grass seagrass on a sandy ocean floor.

Seagrass beds serve as important habitat for a variety of marine life, and understanding their growth patterns better can help fisheries management and restoration efforts. (NOAA)

Amy Uhrin was sensing a challenge ahead of her. As a NOAA scientist working on her PhD, she was studying the way seagrasses grow in different patterns along the coast, and she knew that these underwater plants don’t always create lush, unbroken lawns beneath the water’s surface.

Where she was working, off the North Carolina coast near the Outer Banks, things like the churning motion of waves and the speed of tides can cause seagrass beds to grow in patchy formations. Clusters of bigger patches of seagrass here, some clusters of smaller patches over there. Round patches here, elongated patches over there.

Uhrin wanted to be able to look at aerial images showing large swaths of seagrass habitat and measure how much was actually seagrass, rather than bare sand on the bottom of the estuary. Unfortunately, traditional methods for doing this were tedious and tended to produce rather rough estimates. These involved viewing high-resolution aerial photographs, taken from fixed-wing planes, on a computer monitor and having a person digitally draw lines around the approximate edges of seagrass beds.

While that can be fairly accurate for continuous seagrass beds, it becomes more problematic for areas with lots of small patches of seagrass included inside a single boundary. For the patchy seagrass beds Uhrin was interested in, these visual methods tended to overestimate the actual area of seagrass by 70% to more than 1,500%. There had to be a better way.

Seeing the Light

Patches of seagrass beds of different sizes visible from the air.

Due to local environmental conditions, some coastal areas are more likely to produce patchy patterns in seagrass, rather than large beds with continuous cover. (NOAA)

At the time, Uhrin was taking a class on remote sensing technology, which uses airborne—or, in the case of satellites, space-borne—sensors to gather information about the Earth’s surface (including information about oil spills). She knew that the imagery gathered from satellites (i.e. Landsat) is usually not at a fine enough resolution to view the details of the seagrass beds she was studying. Each pixel on Landsat images is 30 meters by 30 meters, while the aerial photography gathered from low-flying planes often delivered resolution of less than a meter (a little over three feet).

Uhrin wondered if she could apply to the aerial photographs some of the semi-automated classification tools from imagery visualization and analysis programs which are typically used with satellite imagery. She decided to give it a try.

First, she obtained aerial photographs taken of six sites in the shallow coastal waters of North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary System. Using a GIS program, she drew boundaries (called “polygons”) around groups of seagrass patches to the best of her ability but in the usual fashion, which includes a lot of unvegetated seabed interspersed among seagrass patches.

Six aerial photographs of seagrass habitat off the North Carolina coast, with yellow boundary lines drawn around general areas of seagrass habitat.

Aerial photographs show varying patterns of seagrass growth at six study sites off the North Carolina coast. The yellow line shows the digitally drawn boundaries around seagrass and how much of that area is unvegetated for patchy seagrass habitat. (North Carolina Department of Transportation)

Next, Uhrin isolated those polygons of seagrass beds and deleted everything else in each image except the polygon. This created a smaller, easier-to-scan area for the imagery visualization program to analyze. Then, she “trained” the program to recognize what was seagrass vs. sand, based on spectral information available in the aerial photographs.

Though limited compared to what is available from satellite sensors, aerial photographs contain red, blue, and green wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum. Because plants absorb red and blue light and reflect green light (giving them their characteristic green appearance), Uhrin could train the computer program to classify as seagrass the patches where green light was reflected.

Classify in the Sky

Amy Uhrin stands in shallow water documenting data about seagrass inside a square frame of PVC pipe.

NOAA scientist Amy Uhrin found a more accurate and efficient approach to measuring how much area was actually seagrass, rather than bare sand, in aerial images of coastal North Carolina. (NOAA)

To Uhrin’s excitement, the technique worked well, allowing her to accurately identify and map smaller patches of seagrass and export those maps to another computer program where she could precisely measure the distance between patches and determine the size, number, and orientation of seagrass patches in a given area.

“This now allows you to calculate how much of the polygon is actually seagrass vegetation,” said Uhrin, “which is good for fisheries management.” The young of many commercially important species, such as blue crabs, clams, and flounder, live in seagrass beds and actively use the plants. Young scallops, for example, cling to the blades of seagrass before sliding off and burrowing into the sediment as adults.

In addition, being able to better characterize the patterns of seagrass habitat could come in handy during coastal restoration planning and assessment. Due to local environmental conditions, some areas are more likely to produce patchy patterns in seagrass. As a result, efforts to restore seagrass habitat should aim for restoring not just cover but also the original spatial arrangement of the beds.

And, as Uhrin noted, having this information can “help address seagrass resilience in future climate change scenarios and altered hurricane regimes, as patchy seagrass areas are known to be more susceptible to storms than continuous meadows.”

The results of this study, which was done in concert with a colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have been published in the journal Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science.


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Redrawing the Coast After Sandy: First Round of Updated Environmental Sensitivity Data Released for Atlantic States

Contsruction equipment moves sand to rebuild a New Jersey beach in front of houses damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

In Brick, New Jersey, construction crews rebuild the beaches in front of homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. This huge storm actually changed the shape of shorelines up and down the East Coast. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jill Petersen.

In 2012 Hurricane Sandy brought devastating winds and flooding to the Atlantic coast. In some parts of New Jersey, flood waters reached nearly 9 feet. Up and down the East Coast, this massive storm actually reshaped the shoreline.

As a result, we’ve been working to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect the new state of Atlantic shorelines. These maps and data give oil spill planners and responders a quick snapshot of a shoreline’s vulnerability to spilled oil.

This week, we released the digital data, for use within a Geographic Information System (GIS), for the first regions updated after Hurricane Sandy. Passed the January following Sandy, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 provided funds to update ESI maps for eleven Atlantic coast states, ranging from Maine to South Carolina. For this project, we grouped the states into seven regions.

The GIS data for the regions released this week cover South Carolina and portions of New York and New Jersey, including the Hudson River, south Long Island, and the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area. For these two regions, we mapped more than 300 oil-sensitive species and classified over 17,000 miles of shoreline according to their sensitivity to spilled oil.

Updated GIS data and PDF maps for the remaining regions affected by Sandy will be available in the coming months.

Time for a Change

The magnitude of the overall effort has been unprecedented, and provided us with the opportunity to revisit what was mapped and how, and to update the technology used, particularly as it relates to the map production.

Our first Environmental Sensitivity Index maps were produced in the early 1980s and, since that time, the entire U.S. coast has been mapped at least once. To be most useful, these data should be updated every 5–7 years to reflect changes in shoreline and species distributions that may occur due to a variety of things, including human intervention, climate change, or, as in this case, major coastal storms.

In addition to ranking the sensitivity of different shorelines (including wetlands and tidal flats), these data and maps also show the locations of oil-sensitive animals, plants, and habitats, along with various human features that could either be impacted by oil, such as a marina, or be useful in a spill response scenario, such as access points along a beach.

New Shores, New Features

A street sign is buried under huge piles of sand in front of a beach community.

In the wake of Sandy, we’ve been updating our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps and data and adding new features, such as storm surge inundation data. Hurricane Sandy’s flooding left significant impacts on coastal communities in eleven Atlantic states. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

To gather suggestions for improving our ESI maps and data, we sent out user surveys, conducted interviews, and pored over historical documentation. We evaluated all suggestions while keeping the primary users—spill planners and responders—at the forefront. In the end, several major changes were adopted, and these improvements will be included in all future ESI maps and data.

Extended coverage was one of the most requested enhancements. Previous data coverage was focused primarily on the shoreline and nearshore—perhaps 2–3 miles offshore and generally less than 1 mile inland. The post-Sandy maps and data extend 12 nautical miles offshore and 5 miles inland.

This extension enables us to include data such as deep water species and migratory routes, as well as species occurring in wetlands and human-focused features found further inland. With these extra features, we were able to incorporate additional hazards to the coastal environment. One example was the addition of storm surge inundation data, provided by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, which provide flood levels for storms classified from Category 1 to Category 5.

We also added more jurisdictional boundaries, EPA Risk Management Facilities (the EPA-regulated facilities that pose the most significant risk to life or human health), repeated measurement sites (water quality, tide gauges, Mussel Watch sites, etc.), historic wrecks, and locations of coastal invasive species. These supplement the already comprehensive human-use features that were traditionally mapped, such as access points, fishing areas, historical sites, and managed areas.

The biological data in our maps continue to represent where species occur, along with supporting information such as concentration, seasonal variability, life stage and breeding information, and the data source. During an oil spill, knowing the data source (e.g., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is especially important so that responders can reach out for any new information that could impact their approach to the spill response.

A new feature added to the biological data tables alerts users as to why a particular species’ occurrence may warrant more attention than another, providing context such as whether the animals are roosting or migrating. As always, we make note of state and federal threatened, endangered, or listed species.

Next up

Stay tuned for the digital data and PDF maps for additional Sandy-affected regions. While the updated PDF maps will have a slightly different look and feel than prior ones, the symbology and map links will be very familiar to long-time users.

In the meantime, we had already been working on updating ESI maps for two regions outside those funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. These regions, the outer coast of Washington and Oregon and the state of Georgia, have benefited from the general improvements brought about by this process. As of this week, you can now access the latest GIS data for these regions as well.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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How Do We Use Satellite Data During Oil Spills?

This is a post by NOAA’s George Graettinger with Amy MacFadyen.

A view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NASA's Terra Satellites.

A view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from NASA’s Terra Satellites on May 24, 2010. When oil slicks are visible in satellite images, it is because they have changed how the water reflects light, either by making the sun’s reflection brighter or by dampening the scattering of sunlight, which makes the oily area darker. (NASA)

Did you know satellites measure many properties of the Earth’s oceans from space? Remote sensing technology uses various types of sensors and cameras on satellites and aircraft to gather data about the natural world from a distance. These sensors provide information about winds, ocean currents and tides, sea surface height, and a lot more.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is taking advantage of all that data collection by collaborating with NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service to put this environmental intelligence to work during disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes. Remote sensing technology adds another tool to our toolbox as we assess and respond to the environmental impacts of these types of disasters.

In these cases, which tend to be larger or longer-term oil spills, NOAA Satellites analyzes earth and ocean data from a variety of sensors and provides us with data products such as images and maps. We’re then able to take that information from NOAA Satellites and apply it to purposes ranging from detecting oil slicks to determining how an oil spill might be impacting a species or shoreline.

Slick Technology

During an oil spill, observers trained to identify oil from the air go out in helicopters and planes to report an oil slick’s exact location, shape, size, color, and orientation at a given time. Analogous to this “remote sensing” done by the human eye, satellite sensors can help us define the extent of an oil slick on the ocean surface and create a target area where our aerial observers should start looking for oil.

In the case of a large oil spill over a sizable area such as the Gulf of Mexico, this is very important because we can’t afford the time to go out in helicopters and look everywhere or sometimes weather conditions may make it unsafe to do so.

The three blue shapes represent the NOAA oil spill trajectory for May 17, 2010, showing potential levels of oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The green outline represents the aerial footprint or oil extent for the same day, which comes from the NOAA satellite program. All of these shapes appear on a NASA MODIS Terra Satellite background image, as shown in our online response mapping program ERMA.

The three blue shapes represent the NOAA oil spill trajectory for May 17, 2010, showing potential levels of oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The green outline represents the aerial footprint or oil extent for the same day, which comes from the NOAA satellite program. All of these shapes appear on a NASA MODIS Terra Satellite background image, as shown in our online response mapping program ERMA. (NOAA)

Satellite remote sensing typically provides the aerial footprint or outline of the surface oil (the surface oiling extent). However, oil slicks are patchy and vary in the thickness of the oil, which means having the outline of the slick is useful, but we still need our observers to give us more detailed information. That said, we’re starting to be able to use remote sensing to delineate not just the extent but also the thickest parts of the slicks.

Armed with information about where spilled oil may be thickest allows us to prioritize these areas for cleanup action. This “actionable oil” is in a condition that can be collected (via skimmers), dispersed, or burned as part of the cleanup process.

You can see how we mapped the surface oiling extent during the Deepwater Horizon spill based on data analyses from NOAA Satellites into our online response mapping program ERMA.

A Model for the Future

A common use of remotely sensed data in our work is with our oil spill models. Reports of a slick’s extent from both satellite sensors and aerial observers, who report additional information about constantly changing oil slicks, helps our oceanographers improve the forecasts of where the oil will be tomorrow.

Just as weather forecasters continually incorporate real-time observations into their models to improve accuracy, our oceanographers update oil spill trajectory models with the latest overflights and observations of the surface oiling extent (the area where oil is at a given moment). These forecasts offer critical information that the Coast Guard uses to prioritize spill response and cleanup activities.

A Sense of Impact

Oil at the water's surface in a boat wake.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided us with a number of new opportunities to work with remotely sensed data. One use was detecting the outline of oil slicks on the ocean surface. (NOAA)

Over the course of an oil spill, knowing the surface oiling extent and where that oil is going is important for identifying what natural resources are potentially in harm’s way and should be protected during the spill response.

In addition, the data analyses from remote sensing technology directly support our ability to determine how natural resources, whether salt marshes or dolphins, are exposed to spilled oil. Both where an oil slick is and how often it is there will affect the degree of potential harm suffered by sensitive species and habitats over time.

In recent years, we’ve been learning how to better use the remote sensing data collected by satellite and aircraft to look at how, where, and for how long coastal and marine life and habitats are impacted by oil spills and then relate this oil exposure to actual harm to these resources.

Large amounts of oil that stay in the same place for a long time have the potential to cause a lot more harm. For example, dolphins in a certain impacted area might breathe fumes from oil and ingest oil from food and water for weeks or months at a time. Without remotely sensed data, it would be nearly impossible to accomplish this task of tying the exact location and timing of oil exposure to environmental harm.

Remote Opportunities

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided us with a number of new opportunities to work with remotely sensed data. For example, we used this technology to examine the large scale features of the circulation patterns in the Gulf of Mexico, such as the fast-moving Loop Current and associated eddies. The Loop Current is a warm ocean current that flows northward between Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, moves north into the Gulf of Mexico, then loops east and south before exiting through the Florida Straits and ultimately joining the Gulf Stream.

During this oil spill, there were concerns that if the oil slick entered the Loop Current, it could be transported far beyond the Gulf to the Caribbean or up the U.S. East Coast (it did not). NOAA used information from satellite data to monitory closely the position of the slick with respect to the Loop Current throughout the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Our partnership with NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service has been a fruitful one, which we expect to grow even more in the future as technology develops further. In January, NOAA Satellites launched the Jason-3 satellite, which will continue to collect critical sea surface height data, adding to a satellite data record going back to 1992. One way these data will be used is in helping track the development of hurricanes, which in turn can cause oil spills.

We hope ongoing collaboration across NOAA will further prepare us for the future and whatever it holds.


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How Do You Keep Killer Whales Away From an Oil Spill?

This is a guest post by Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat.

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. (NOAA)

I sleep better at night knowing that we have a plan in place to keep endangered Southern Resident killer whales away from an oil spill. Preventing oil spills is key, but since killer whales, also known as orcas, spend much of their time in the busy waters around Seattle, the San Juan Islands, and Vancouver, British Columbia, there is always a chance a spill could happen.

The Southern Residents are a small and social population of killer whales, so an oil spill could have major impacts on the entire population if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We’ve learned from past experience with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that killer whales and other marine mammals don’t avoid oiled areas on their own and exposure to oil likely can affect their populations. New information on impacts from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on bottlenose dolphins (a close relative of killer whales) gives us a better idea of how oil exposure can affect the health and reproduction of marine mammals.

Oil spills are a significant threat to the Southern Resident population, which totals less than 90 animals, and the 2008 recovery plan [PDF] calls for a response plan to protect them. We brought experts together in 2007 to help us identify tools and techniques to deter killer whales from oil and develop a response plan so that we’d be prepared in case a major oil spill does happen.

The Sound of Readiness

Killer whales are acoustic animals. They use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation, a type of biosonar. Because sound is so important, using loud or annoying sounds is one way that we can try to keep the whales away from an area contaminated with oil. We brainstormed a variety of ideas based on experience with killer whales and other animals and evaluated a long list of ideas, including sounds, as well as more experimental approaches, such as underwater lights, air bubble curtains, and hoses.

After receiving lots of input and carefully evaluating each option, we developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly if the whales are headed straight toward a spill. Helicopter hazing, banging pipes (oikomi pipes), and underwater firecrackers are on the short list of options. Here’s a little more about each approach:

  • Helicopters are often available to do surveillance of oil and look for animals when a spill occurs. By moving at certain altitudes toward the whales, a helicopter creates sound and disturbs the water’s surface, which can motivate or “haze” whales to move away from oiled areas.
  • Banging pipes, called oikomi pipes, are metal pipes about eight feet long which are lowered into the water and struck with a hammer to make a loud noise. These pipes have been used to drive or herd marine mammals. For killer whales, pipes were successfully used to help move several whales that were trapped in a freshwater lake in Alaska.
  • Underwater firecrackers can also be used to deter whales. These small explosives are called “seal bombs” because they were developed and can be used to keep seals and sea lions away [PDF] from fishing gear. These small charges were used in the 1960s and 1970s to help capture killer whales for public display in aquaria. Now we are using historical knowledge of the whales’ behavior during those captures to support conservation of the whales.

In addition, our plan includes strict safety instructions about how close to get and how to implement these deterrents in order to prevent injury of oil spill responders and the whales. In the case of an actual spill, the wildlife branch within the Incident Command (the official response team dealing with the spill, usually led by the Coast Guard) would direct qualified responders to implement the different techniques based on specific information about the oil and whales.

Planning in Practice

Several killer whales break the surface of Washington's Puget Sound.

Killer whales use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation. That’s why NOAA’s plan for keeping these acoustic animals away from oil spills involves using sound as a deterrent. (NOAA)

After incorporating the killer whale response plan into our overall Northwest Area Contingency Plan for oil spills, I felt better but knew we still had some work to do.

Since finalizing the plan in 2009, we’ve been focused on securing equipment, learning more about the techniques, and practicing them during oil spill drills. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard and local hydrophone networks (which record underwater sound), we’ve flown helicopters over underwater microphones to record sound levels at different distances and altitudes.

With our partners at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Island Oil Spill Association, we built several sets of banging pipes and have them strategically staged around Puget Sound. In 2013 we conducted a drill with our partners and several researchers to test banging pipes in the San Juan Islands. It takes practice to line up several small boats, coordinate the movement of the boats, and synchronize banging a set of the pipes to create a continuous wall of sound that will discourage whales from getting close to oil. We learned a few critical lessons to update our implementation plans and to incorporate into plans for future drills.

A large oil spill in Southern Resident killer whale habitat would be a nightmare. I’m so glad we have partners focused on preventing and preparing for oil spills, and it is good to know we have a plan to keep an oil spill from becoming a catastrophe for endangered killer whales. That knowledge helps me rest easier and focus on good news like the boom in killer whale calves born to mothers in Washington’s Puget Sound.

You can find more information on our killer whale response plan and our recovery program for Southern Resident killer whales.

Lynne Barre in front of icy waters and snowy cliffs.Lynne Barre is a Branch Chief for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. She is the Recovery Coordinator for Southern Resident killer whales and works on marine mammal and endangered species conservation and recovery.


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Alaska Updates Plan for Using Dispersants During Oil Spills

Humpback whale and seabirds at surface of Bering Sea with NOAA ship beyond.

By breaking crude oils into smaller droplets, chemical dispersants reduce the surface area of an oil slick as well as the threats to marine life at the ocean surface, such as whales and seabirds. (NOAA)

While the best way to deal with oil spills in the ocean is to prevent them in the first place, when they do happen, we need to be ready. Cleanup is difficult, and there are no magic remedies to remove all the oil. Most big oil spills require a combination of cleanup tools.

This week the Alaska Regional Response Team, an advisory council for oil spill responses in Alaska, has adopted a revised plan for one of the most controversial tools in the toolbox: Chemical dispersants.

How Dispersants Are Used in Oil Spills

Dispersants are chemical compounds which, when applied correctly under the right conditions, break crude oils into smaller droplets that mix down into the water column. This reduces not only the surface area of an oil slick but also the threats to marine life at the ocean surface. By making the oil droplets smaller, they become much more available to natural degradation by oil-eating microbes.

Dispersants are controversial for many reasons, notably because they don’t remove oil from the marine environment. Mechanical removal methods are always preferred, but we also know that during large oil spills, containment booms and skimmers can get overwhelmed and other pollution response tools may be necessary. This is a big concern especially in Alaska, where weather and remote locations increase the logistical challenges inherent in a large scale oil spill response.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention because of their extensive use after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they actually are used rarely during oil spills. In fact, dispersants have only been applied to about two dozen spills in the United States in the last 40 years. The only time they were tested during an actual spill in Alaska was during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Some oils like light and medium crude are often dispersible and others, like heavy fuel oils, often are not. In some cases dispersants have worked and in others they haven’t. The results of the Exxon Valdez testing were unclear and still subject to debate. So, why have a plan for something that is rarely used and may not be successful?

Probably the biggest reason is pragmatic. Dispersants work best on fresh, unweathered oil. Ideally, they should be applied to oil within hours or days of a spill. Because time is such a critical factor to their effectiveness, dispersants need to be stockpiled in key locations, along with the associated aircraft spraying and testing equipment. People properly trained to use that equipment need to be ready to go too.

A New Plan for Alaska

Airplane sprays dispersants over an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although only used once in an Alaskan oil spill, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in the state for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Now, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in Alaska [PDF] for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly while still requiring notification of the natural resource trustees, local and tribal governments, and other stakeholders before actual use.

Alaska’s new plan specifies all the requirements for applying dispersants on an oil spill in Alaskan waters and includes detailed checklists to ensure that if dispersants are used, they have a high probability of success.

The new plan sets up a limited preauthorization zone in central and western Alaska, and case-by-case procedures for dispersant use elsewhere in Alaska. The plan also recognizes that there are highly sensitive habitats where dispersant use should be avoided.

In addition, preauthorization for using dispersants exists only for oil spills that happen far offshore. Most states have similar preauthorization plans that allow dispersant use starting three nautical miles offshore. The new Alaska plan starts at 24 miles offshore.

We realize that even far offshore, there may be areas to avoid, which is why all of the spill response plans in central and western Alaska will be revised over the next two years. This will occur through a public process to identify sensitive habitats where dispersant use would be subject to additional restrictions.

Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

As the NOAA representative to the Alaska Regional Response Team, I appreciate all of the effort that has gone into this plan. I am grateful we developed the many procedures through a long and inclusive planning process, rather than in a rush on a dark and stormy night on the way to an oil spill.

But I hope this plan will never be needed, because that will mean that a big oil spill has happened. Nobody wants that, especially in pristine Alaskan waters.

Any decision to use dispersants will need to be made cautiously, combining the best available science with the particular circumstances of an oil spill. In some cases, dispersants may not be the best option, but in other scenarios, there may be a net environmental benefit from using dispersants. Having the dispersants, equipment, plans, and training in place will allow us to be better prepared to make that critical decision should the time come.

At the same time, NOAA and our partners are continuing to research and better understand the potential harm and trades-offs of dispersant use following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We are participating in an ongoing effort to understand the state of the science on dispersants and their potential use in Arctic waters. (The University of New Hampshire is now accepting comments on the topic of dispersant efficacy and effectiveness.)

You can find Alaska’s new dispersant policy and additional information at the Alaska Regional Response Team website at www.alaskarrt.org.

For more information on our work on dispersants, read the April 2015 article, “What Have We Learned About Using Dispersants During the Next Big Oil Spill?” and July 2013 article, “Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility.”


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What Do We Know Today About Microbeads and Microplastics in the Ocean?

Plastic microbeads visible in toothpaste on a toothbrush.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. They can pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. (NOAA)

Almost four years ago, I was surprised to find out about the presence of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, such as exfoliating face cleansers and some types of toothpaste.

The problem with these tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic is that once they are washed down the drain, they escape being filtered by wastewater treatment processes, allowing them to enter the ocean and Great Lakes where they could absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and be ingested by animal life.

Microbeads are actually not a recent problem; according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients with the same purpose in these products. But even in 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.

Microbeads, Macro-attention

For several years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working with researchers that are investigating issues relating to microbeads in our marine environment. In recent years, the issue has received a fair amount of attention in the media and elsewhere.

As a result of increasing overall awareness of the problem, many companies that use microbeads in their products have been phasing them out voluntarily. On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The law was met with a lot of support, including from the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group who commented during the act’s approval process, which said:

“Solid, plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research by independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations show that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are miniscule contributors to marine plastic debris; cosmetic microbeads are a tiny fraction of that. At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards of their products. As a result, companies have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads. We look forward to this important bipartisan legislation making its way to President Obama’s desk and being signed into law.”

Under the Microscope

Tiny bits of microplastics litter a sandy patch of beach.

Microplastics, which include microbeads, are less than 5 millimeters long (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Most microplastic in the ocean actually ends up there after breaking down from bigger pieces of plastic on beaches. (NOAA)

After I originally learned about microbeads in cosmetic products, I discussed the issue with Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters.

At the time, he was leading a project for the NOAA Marine Debris Program focused on detecting microplastics in the marine environment. Microplastics, which include microbeads, are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed. More recently, he has conducted a study, “Quantification of Marine Microplastics in the Surface Waters of the Gulf of Alaska,” that examined the quantity and distribution of microplastics at specific locations in Alaskan waters over time.

Following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, I checked back in with Dr. Baker to get his thoughts on the issue now. Four years ago, he had told me, “While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms, we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever-increasing concentrations of marine debris.”

Speaking to him now, while Dr. Baker sees the attention given to microbeads in health and beauty products over the last few years as a good way to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean, he cautions that there still is not enough known about the damage that these extremely small particles cause. He further points out that while certainly not insignificant, they represent a very small percentage of total microplastic debris in the ocean.

We need more research to be able to measure accurately the presence of smaller microplastics, including microbeads, in the ocean. While Dr. Baker and his colleagues have developed a manual on laboratory methods for extracting microplastics from water samples, the methods do not yet detect the smallest particles such as the microbeads that exist in some health and beauty products.

Breaking Down the Issues

In addition, Dr. Baker pointed out to me that microbeads are not the largest source of marine plastic or even microplastics. “Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash,” he said. Cosmetic microbeads are much smaller, and are considered primary microplastics [PDF], as opposed to secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.

While Dr. Baker found encouraging the news that we’ll be stopping one of the many ways plastic reaches the ocean, he emphasized there are plenty more that will require a lot of effort. He suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the abundance of plastic bags that end up in the ocean, which he feels represents a larger part of the plastic marine debris problem.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to learn more about the impacts of marine microplastics. In addition to Dr. Baker’s work, the program currently is supporting microplastic research projects that include, but aren’t limited to, measuring microplastics in the marine environment; the presence of microplastics in different geographical regions, such as the coastal mid-Atlantic region and national park beaches; examining juvenile fishes to determine if they are ingesting microplastic; and the effects of microplastics in aquatic food chains.

For more information on these issues, you also can refer to a UNEP 2014 update on plastic debris in the ocean [PDF].


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Working to Reverse the Legacy of Lead in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay

Person standing at a fenced-off beach closed to the public.

Some of the beach front at Old Bridge Waterfront Park in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site is closed to fishing, swimming, and sunbathing due to lead contamination leaching from metal slag used in the construction of a seawall and to fortify a jetty. (NOAA)

Once lined with reeds, oysters, and resort towns, New Jersey’s Raritan Bay, like many other bodies of water, today is feeling the effects of industrial transformation begun decades ago.

Around 1925, the National Lead Company became the largest lead company in the United States. The company is perhaps best known for their white-lead paints, sold under the Dutch Boy label. One of its many facilities was located in Perth Amboy, a town on the western edge of Raritan Bay, where it operated a lead smelter that generated wastes containing lead and other hazardous substances.

A Toxic Toll

Illustration of a little boy painting used in Dutch Boy paints logo.

This image was adopted by the National Lead Company in 1913 for its Dutch Boy paints. A version of it still is in use today. (New York Public Library Digital Collections/Public domain)

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, slag from National Lead’s lead smelter in Perth Amboy was used as building material to construct a seawall along the southern shoreline of Raritan Bay, several miles to the south of the facility.

Slag is a stony waste by-product of smelting or refining processes containing various metals. Slag, battery casings, and demolition debris were used to fill in some areas of a nearby marsh and littered the marsh and beaches along the bay.

In September 1972, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection received a tip that the slag being placed along Raritan Bay at the Laurence Harbor beachfront contained lead.

Over time, contamination from the slag and other wastes began leaching into the water, soil, and sediments of Raritan Bay, which is home to a variety of aquatic life, including flounder, clams, and horseshoe crabs, but evidence of the pollution only became available decades later.

Cleaner Futures

By 2007 the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had confirmed high levels of lead and other metals in soils of Old Bridge Waterfront Park on Raritan Bay’s south shore. State and local officials put up temporary fencing and warning signs and notified the public about health concerns stemming from the lead in the seawall.

The following year, New Jersey asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider cleaning up contaminated areas along the seawall because of the elevated levels of metals. By November 2009, the EPA confirmed the contamination and declared this polluted area in and near Old Bridge Waterfront Park a Superfund site (called Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site). They installed signs and fencing at a creek, marsh, and some beaches to restrict access and protect public health.

In May 2013 EPA selected a cleanup strategy, known as a “remedy,” to address risks to the public and environment from the pollution, and in January 2014 they ordered NL Industries, which in 1971 had changed its name from the National Lead Company, to conduct a $79 million cleanup along Raritan Bay.

Cleanup will involve digging up and dredging the slag, battery casings, associated waste, and sediment and soils where lead exceeds 400 parts per million. An EPA news release from January 2014 emphasizes the concern over lead:

“Lead is a toxic metal that is especially dangerous to children because their growing bodies can absorb more of it than adults. Lead in children can result in I.Q. deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, reduced attention spans, hyperactivity and other behavioral disorders. The order requires the removal of lead-contaminated material and its replacement with clean material in order to reduce the risk to those who use the beach, particularly children.”

Identifying Impacts

Public health hazard sign about lead contamination on a beach and jetty.

A jetty and surrounding coastal area on Raritan Bay is contaminated with lead and other hazardous materials from slag originating at the National Lead Company’s Perth Amboy, New Jersey, facility. (NOAA)

After the Raritan Bay Slag site became a Superfund site in late 2009, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration worked with the EPA to determine the nature, extent, and effects of the contamination. Under a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program and our co-trustees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, have been assessing and quantifying the likely impacts to the natural resources and the public’s use of those resources that may have occurred due to the contamination along Raritan Bay.

As part of this work, we are identifying opportunities for restoration projects that will compensate for the environmental harm as well as for people’s inability to use the affected natural resources, for example, due to beach closures and restricted access to fishing.

“The south shore of Raritan Bay is an important ecological, recreational, and economic resource for the New York-New Jersey Harbor metropolitan area,” said NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Lisa Rosman. “Cleanup and restoration are key to improving conditions and allowing public access to this valuable resource.”

Watch for future updates on progress toward restoration on Raritan Bay.

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